The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, January 31, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW - Dan in Real Life

Full review behind the jump

Dan in Real Life

: Peter Hedges
: Pierce Gardner and Peter Hedges
: Brad Epstein and Jonathan Shestack
: Steve Carell, Juliette Binoche, Dane Cook, Dianne Weist, John Mahoney, Allison Pill, Brittany Robertson, Marlene Lawston

I think a character in a comedy should not know they’re in a comedy.
-Steve Carell

Steve Carell has a gift I can only describe as the ability to fail to conceal his emotions from us. Time and time again in
Dan in Real Life, a breezy but heartfelt comedy, his character, advice columnist Dan Burns, assures everyone around him that he is fine. And yet in his increasingly careless and selfish actions, his loss of grip on the daily demands of his life, and particularly in the anguish that sneaks around the corners of his face, we know that he is far from fine.

Dan is a widower with three daughters, and doesn’t talk much about his wife’s death, and that is key to this performance’s winning indirectness. Because the filmmakers give you just enough raw material to imagine how he needed to pull himself together for the sake of his daughters, and how after a few years that determined decency could end up as this – the patient surrender of a man who has decided that the rest of his life is for other people, not himself. What leaks through, breaking that easy grin, is a man suffering from the realization that he is still alive, and does still want things.

Despite this latent grief, his performance has a loose warmth to it that the movie shares; it is somehow slight about its own seriousness. It will sound like a belittling sort of compliment, but I say it to point out its rarity: this movie is just, plain,

The story unfolds over a weekend get-together for the extended Burns family at a giant old house in New England. Headed by reliable charmers John Mahoney and Dianne Weist, this is a brood that sings together, plays together, and concerns themselves with each others’ problems to a fault. With all the brothers and cousins and wives it can get messy, but it’s in a convincing way, and the persistent togetherness of it has charm. Too many moviegoers would turn their nose up at the thought of watching a family that plans activities together with such gusto – but they do exist.

In the midst of this, Dan is dealing with a potential promotion for his column, and the adolescent heart pangs of his middle daughter, Cara. Cara is played by Brittany Robertson, and in her longing for the dashing Marty (Felipe Dieppa) she embodies with painfully hilarious abandon the desperation of first love. Fathers must go through a moment where they realize that infatuation has permanently altered their relationship with their no-longer-so-little girl, and Carell depicts this rising alarm like a man trying to reason with a geyser.

His family has known him long enough to give him a certain space for his feelings, but when he meets Marie (Juliette Binoche) in a bookstore, her sympathies are so directly tuned to his frequency that, the moment where she recognizes the grief he’s carrying, it’s like she’s been struck by a boulder. The line that accompanies this is exactly what it should be: “You don’t have to laugh”, she says, her voice suddenly choking.

The chance encounter that becomes sudden intimacy with a stranger sure looks like a path to new love, but the roadblock here is that Marie is already on her way to the Burns house – as the new paramour of Dan’s brother, Mitch (Dane Cook). Converted stand-up comedian Cook is a performer who clearly has an immense appeal to many, but no one in the movie business has seemingly cracked the code of it yet. He is accurate here without being particularly excellent, his Mitch is a tomcat trying to improve – charming, but still fully-capable of unconscious offenses. In a scene where he’s describing his adoration of Marie, we might be shocked by Dan’s petulant interjections. Later we’ll understand them better, which is a sign that director/co-writer Peter Hedges has given this story a thorough thinking-through and intends for us to pay attention all the way.

The movie jogs through a weekend of secret pleadings, misunderstandings, slammed doors, and the helpless discombobulation of Dan Burns, a man losing control of everything he’s had cinched up inside. It’s Carell’s ability to play these as moments of helpless expression, accidents of the moment, that underlines the movie’s own theme. This stuff never waits for your convenience. Bit by bit, he is expanding audiences’ idea of what he’s capable of as a comic actor, and it’s a pleasure to witness the evolution.

There are so many points at which Dan in Real Life could have turned into a forgettably-gauzy TV movie. Its characters and incidents are common, a little soft even, and yet are woven by the writers into something unexpectedly sturdy. This is not a great movie but it’s a thoroughly good one, right down to the open-hearted original songs by Sondre Lerche. I think it needs someone like Steve Carell at its center, a performer whose best asset is his own deference, his unassuming nature. He’s someone we could meet in real life; someone who, even in watching him screw up, we gain faith that he can navigate this real life, and maybe that means we can, too. How does a movie feel when it does that? It feels nice.


  • I found the moment where Dan performs "Let My Love Open the Door" to be nothing short of heartbreaking. Then I saw the trailer for "Get Smart", and sighed.

    By Anonymous Mike De Luca, at 9:04 AM  

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